Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Laura Ruby's Bone Gap is another recent publication with a blurb from E. Lockhart, whose Ruby Oliver series, Printz Award-winning novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and latest hit We Were Liars make her a trusted voice in YA fiction. I did not know what to expect from Bone Gap. It was a recommended title on Amazon, and I ordered it along with preorders for May publications by Sarah Dessen, Jenny Han, and Robyn Schneider. It was completed unexpected: the gripping narrative, magic realism, and compelling characters. I read it in almost one sitting and wanted to share it with everyone I know who reads YA lit right after. 

Bone Gap is a town full of gaps. Things slip through the cracks, and so it's no surprise to the residents of Bone Gap when Roza disappears. She's not from there after all; she showed up one night, and no one thought she would stay. Teenager Finn O'Sullivan knows Roza well. She's been living with him and his older brother, Sean. Finn feels implicated in Roza's disappearance: he was the last person to see her, and he knows his brother can't forgive him for not trying harder to make her stay. But Finn is convinced Roza was kidnapped by a man who moves like the corn. No one believes him, especially because he can't describe him in any tangible way: "The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name. When he was little, they called him Spaceman. Sidetrack. Moonface. You. As he got older, they called him Pretty Boy. Loner. Brother. Dude." He's strange, weird, and a little distracted. Ruby writes, 
Eventually, though, they found out that there was a good reason for Finn's odd expressions, his strange distraction, that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person. A good reason he never looked anyone in the eye.
But by then it was too late, and the girl they loved most - and knew least of all - was gone.
Although the novel starts from Finn's point of view, it shifts slowly over the course of the novel. The reader finds Roza where Finn cannot, in a strange, shifting world that she's been taken to before. The novel unravels slowly, moving back and forth between the real and the unreal, slowly becoming more than a work of YA fiction. It rewrites Greek mythology, especially Persephone and Demeter. 

The characters are extremely compelling, especially a girl named Petey, who Finn falls for. Her mom owns several bee hives and has a honey company. She's the strangest looking girl in Bone Gap, but Finn doesn't know that. Small town America starts out realistic, but then becomes strange, and different, and mythical. Ruby's novel is one of the best I've read in a while, as mythology is layered across contemporary young adult experience.

Friday, June 12, 2015

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

The follow-up to Jenny Han's To All The Boys I've Loved Before was published at the end of May, and has the same fantastic cover art, design, and story as the first book. P.S. I Still Love You picks up right where To All The Boys I've Loved Before left off, over the Christmas holidays at the Covey household. Protagonist Lara Jean has just decided to try to have a real relationship with Peter Kavinsky, after pretending to date him for months. Lara Jean's younger sister Kitty had sent out five love letters that Lara Jean had written to guys she'd previously crushed on. One of them included her sister's not-so-ex-boyfriend. As a way to convince him she had a crush on him in the past, and not the present, Lara Jean starts a fake relationship with Peter, who has also received one of her love letters. But instead of creating awkwardness between them, Peter sees potential instead. Plus he's just broken up with his girlfriend Gen, Lara Jean's former best friend.

Lara Jean and Peter decide to date for real, but they still come up with a handful of rules and make a contract to guide their relationship:
Peter will not be more than five minutes late.
Lara Jean will not make Peter do crafts of any kind.
Peter doesn't have to call Lara Jean before he goes to bed at night, but he can if he feels like it.
Lara Jean will only go to parties if she feels like it.
Peter will give Lara Jean rides whenever she wants.
Lara Jean and Peter will always tell each other the truth.
The contract mimics the one they made to guide their fake relationship, when Lara Jean was bound to attending a certain number of parties with Peter.

But things don't run as smoothly in their real relationship. Not like in their fake one, when neither was as invested in the other. Now, someone has posted a video to Instagram of them in the hot tub on their school ski trip, and it's much more suggestive than Lara Jean would like it to be. It's become a meme, it's been sped up and slowed down, it's been mashed up with scenes from The Little Mermaid. Lara Jean is mortified, although she has a sneaking suspicion she knows who took the video in the first place. Peter's ex-girlfriend, Gen, who can't let him go.

Lara Jean is incredibly insecure about Peter's relationship with Gen, which seems to be ongoing, even though he's with Lara Jean now. He texts her, hangs out at her house, and embraces her in public. It's not until near the end of the novel that Lara Jean realizes, "I want to say, I never cared about your past. But that isn't true. It's only then that I realize: Peter wasn't the one who needed to get over Genevieve. It was me. All this time with Peter, I've been comparing myself to her, all the ways I don't measure up. All the ways our relationship pales next to theirs. I'm the one who couldn't let her go. I'm the one who didn't give us a chance."

In the middle of her turmoil with Peter, in steps John Ambrose McClaren, the last recipient of one of Lara Jean's love letters. He isn't at all like she remembers. She tells him he's changed the most out of all of their childhood friends. There is major potential between Lara Jean and John, and their connection was more interesting than Lara Jean and Peter's in the novel. There is a fantastic party at the retirement home that Lara Jean works at, where her and John come dressed in costume for a USO themed party - by far the highlight of the novel. And back are the generous descriptions of the cakes, cookies, and cherry turnovers that Lara Jean bakes for Peter and her family.

Jenny Han has said there won't be a third book to follow P.S. I Still Love You:

The book ends slightly indecisively, presenting a conclusion for the present and perhaps a difference conclusion for the future. Jenny Han writes an excellent YA romance, and I enjoyed getting to follow Lara Jean's story for an additional book.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

Vanishing Girls is the first novel I've read by Lauren Oliver, although my sister has read and enjoyed her Delirium trilogy, which was published a few years ago. Vanishing Girls is a YA thriller with a twist, which is hinted at by the presence of a blurb by E. Lockhart on the front cover of the book. Lockhart's recent novel, We Were Liars, is another book with a remarkable twist.

Vanishing Girls tells the story of Nick (Nicole) and Dara, sisters who are trying to find their way back to normal after a horrible car crash that left them damaged enough to necessitate months of recovery in the hospital. When they return home, they find themselves in the middle of a major event that is affecting their home town, Somerville: a nine-year-old girl named Madeline Snow has gone missing, vanished from the back of her sister's car while parked out front of an ice cream parlour. The stories are interwoven, presented by a variety of sources. Nick and Dara offer their own perspectives in chapters that alternate between "Before" and "After" the accident. There are also entries from Dara's diary, online articles about the missing Madeline Snow, photographs, and notes. These all work towards piecing together the mystery of Madeline's disappearance as well as helping Nick and Dara heal from their accident. 

Nick and Dara's lives have been slowly eroded. Their parents are in the middle of divorcing, and their father has moved out of the house: "For the first month or so after Dad announced he was leaving, Mom acted like absolutely nothing was different. But recently she's been forgetting: to turn on the dishwasher, to set her alarm, to iron her work blouses, to vacuum. It's lie every time he removes another item from the house - his favourite chair, the chess set he inherited from his father, the golf clubs he never uses - it takes a portion of her brain with it." And Nick can't make things work with Dara anymore. It was Nick who was driving the car the night she and Dara got into the accident, and since they've both returned home, Dara won't talk to her. This is complicated by the presence of Parker, Nick's childhood friend and Dara's boyfriend. He's the awkward thing between them, something one of them has and the other one doesn't. Nick explains,
Dara had just broken up with her latest boyfriend, Josh or Jake or Mark or Mike - I could never keep them straight, they cycled in and out of her life so fast. And suddenly, she would crash movie night with Parker, wearing short-shorts and a tissue-thin shirt that showed the black lacy cups of her bra. Or I would see them riding the scooter together in the freezing cold, her arms wrapped around his chest, her head titled back, laughing. Or I would walk into the room and he would jerk quickly backward, flashing me a guilty look, while she kept a long, tan leg draped across his lap.
Suddenly, I was the third wheel.
Nicks' mom insists that she work at Fan Land, an old amusement park a short bus ride away from their house, for the summer. It's a way to distract her from her problems with Dara, and to keep her both mentally and physically busy. What Nick doesn't plan on is working with Parker for the summer. 

Oliver deftly writes about the relationship between sisters. Nick navigates her way back to being Dara's best friend, while Dara leads Nick through a game that she made up: "It's called: catch me if you can." Meanwhile, the disappearance of Madeline Snow drifts in and out of the background, finally coming to intersect with Nick and Dara. 

It's hard to talk about a book like this without talking about the twist, which waits at the end of the story like a trapdoor, forcing the reader to go back and reconsider everything that's come before. 

Some of Oliver's writing is so poignant that she captures adolescence in a way that seems very right. I loved the switch in perspectives between Nick and Dara, and Dara's frank writing in her diary entries. It turns into a very different book two thirds of the way in, becoming a thriller instead of realistic YA fiction. I didn't mind, because Oliver's writing continues to remain consistent, especially in the small details that make up adolescent experience. I flew through Vanishing Girls, and am checking out the Delirium trilogy next!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt

I was lucky enough to hear Kimberly Willis Holt speak at the YA Literature Conference at Louisiana State University last summer. I read her books when I was in elementary and middle school, both Louisiana Sky and When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, so it was fairly exciting to hear her talk about writing and her books during the conference. At a presentation at a Baton Rouge library, Willis Holt read an excerpt from a work in progress, which happened to be Dear Hank Williams. At the time, it was slated for publication in 2015, and it just came out a few months ago. 

Dear Hank Williams is an epistolary novel, although the letters are very one-sided: Tate P. Ellerbee and her classmates have been asked by their teacher to find a pen pal and write to him or her. Tate picks Hank Williams, since she routinely hears him singing on the radio as part of the Louisiana Hay Ride. She doesn't seem bothered that he doesn't write her back, but continues to tell him about her family and her life in Rippling Creek, Louisiana. It's just a few years since WWII ended (the book is set in 1948), and Tate's teacher's suggestion of the class writing to Japanese pen pals is not met favourably by everyone. Tate writes, "Mrs. Kipler's brains must have frizzled from her last perm. We just got out of a war with those folks. I'm not about to share my life with the enemy. I remember when I was four years old, the soldiers from Camp Claiborne marched past our house in the mornings. Aunt Patty Cake would have a pot of coffee ready for them. Before we saw them, we heard the stomp, stomp sounds of their boots pounding the road. When we did, we'd walk outside, Aunt Patty Cake with the coffee, Momma with the cups and cream, and me with the spoons."

She lives with her Aunt Patty Cake and her Uncle Jolly (they are brother and sister), who is consistently bringing home new women to date: "We know Uncle Jolly has had his heart broken when we discover sofa cushions scattered on the floor and Aunt Patty Cake's straight chair pointing legs up. He leaves a trail through the mess where he's staggered to his bedroom. Aunt Patty Cake calls it 'Jolly's Path of Heartbreak Destruction.'"

When Willis Holt spoke about the book, she said it was strongly influenced by her discovery of the Goree Girls, a women's singing group from Goree State Farm, a women's prison in Huntsville, Texas. They were popular, received fan mail, and got radio play. Tate's mother is a Goree Girl, although Tate pretends to Hank Williams that she is an actress in Hollywood. There are many secrets like these; Tate is an incredibly unreliable narrator. 

I didn't like Dear Hank Williams as much as Holt's other novels, mostly because there seemed to be so many surprised reveals that clashed with the truth as Tate told it. But the Louisiana setting, the epistolary format, and Tate's nuanced voice makes this book well worth the read. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Open Road Summer by Emery Lord

Author Emery Lord's debut novel Open Road Summer was published in 2014, and was followed up by The Start of Me and You in 2015. The Start of Me and You was highly recommended by author Robyn Schneider in a video when she raved about the love interest in the YA romance. The book was out of stock at the Lethbridge Chapters, so I picked up Open Road Summer and finished it in almost one sitting. 

Reagan O'Neill is joining her best friend Dee Montgomery on a 24-city-tour for the summer. Dee is a country music superstar who has just used her own breakup with childhood sweetheart Jimmy to fuel enough songs for a new hit album. Think Taylor Swift. Reagan shows up to the beginning of the tour with her broken arm in a cast and her bad-news boyfriend behind her and she's looking forward to a summer away with her best friend. 

But things change when a nude photo scandal lands Dee in hot water, her publicist scrambling for a way out. Enter Matt Finch, singer-songwriter, used-to-be member of the band The Finch Four, "a wholesome teen band that included his sister and two brothers. When we were in middle school, the band was a phenomenon. All three boys were sweet-faced, and they had hordes of screaming preteen fans. All the girls I knew wanted to be Carrie Finch, and they all wanted to marry Matt, the youngest and closest to our age." He's the perfect person for Dee to pretend to have a relationship with while he takes over as the opening act for the entire tour. He's just gone through a break-up of his own.

Lord has written song lyrics throughout the novel, some for Dee and others for Matt, many of which dredge up their previous relationships as writing works as a way to move through the aftermath. Reagan describes the title song from Dee's new album Middle of Nowhere, Tennessee as written for Jimmy:

Middle of nowhere, Tennessee,
Exactly where I want to be.
Our initials carved into the old oak tree,
And every road takes me back home.
Middle of nowhere, Tennessee,
Dancing on the porch, you and me.
This is where I was born to be,
No matter how far I may roam.

The behind-the-scenes of a country music tour include Dee donning a disguise to see Matt play at a bar, stopping at a local county fair, and zipping into gas stations to grab snacks. It's a fantastic romance, a not-quite triangle that combines Dee and Matt's fake relationship and the real relationship developing between Matt and Reagan. Reagan's voice and demeanour makes her one of my favourite characters in the recent YA novels I've read. She's been in trouble, she still gets in trouble, but she's incredibly self-aware about her actions and herself. Lord's writing is pitch perfect. There are so many similes that hang at the end of sentences, never falling into cliche. It's some of the best writing I've read in a YA romance. 

I just picked up The Start of Me and You today, and am looking forward to Lord's third novel, which was recently given a release date for 2016.  Open Road Summer is such an excellent summer read, and Lord is certainly an author I'll be watching for!